American author Henry James has been dead nearly a century, but his realistic literary style, as found in the 1897 novel “What Maisie Knew,” lives on in a fresh, modern-day approach, from directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel, that gracefully updates the story of a preadolescent daughter of horribly irresponsible parents. No child should suffer through such an awful custody battle. Perhaps the book birthed the dysfunctional family, but the new film confirms the species is far from extinct. The most revelatory part of the film, however, belongs to a nuanced performance by the sad-eyed six-year-old Onata Aprile in the title role, an unfortunate family castoff. This super confident young actor seems worldly well beyond her years, nicely steadying herself amidst the home-wrecking battles between her self-obsessed parents.
But one actor does not a movie make (generally), and when you stir in Julianne Moore, Steve Coogan, Alexander Skarsgård, and Joanna Vanderham as the extended family unit working within the weighty yet hopeful (and 18-year-old) script by Carroll Cartwright and Nancy Doyne, the film’s quality escalates accordingly. Moore and Coogan are Maisie’s divorced, bickering parents Susanna and Beale. She’s a cigarette-smoking, beer-guzzling rock musician of some renown who constantly leaves her child with blonde, attractive nanny Margo (Vanderham) while she flits about from concert to concert. Beale fits easily within Coogan’s collection of moderately loathsome, lightly comic characters, i.e. a mesmerizing annoyance for most folks. Watch for him (actually just his voice), appropriately, in the forthcoming “Despicable Me 2.” His Beale is too busy with his art dealing “business opportunities” to drop the phone and speak to his daughter—unless he’s offering her an invitation for a double espresso.
Swedish-born Skarsgård, best known among American coach potatoes for his role as the aloof vampire Eric Northman in HBO’s “True Blood,” just appeared in “Disconnect” and pops up soon as a an eco-terrorist in “The East.” He’s very versatile and intense, but plays his role here, bartender Lincoln (Susanna’s boy toy), as a variation to the brainwashed, emotionally-addled Eric he played briefly in a later season of his pay cable vampire series. His demeanor is sullen, if upbeat, even if his hands are stuffed in his pants pockets and his face pointed despondently toward the ground. His heart (it’s beating) is definitely centered and he dotes on Maisie, even if he has no child-rearing skills. Their chemistry is electric. Scottish actress Vanderham’s Margo is a bundle of vulnerable insecurity, believing that Beale’s infatuation with her will be more than the generic daddy-marrying-the-nanny story.
In a film with forgetful parents who think nothing of the callous embarrassment they are heaping on their innocent child, the redemption is not with them—and, frankly, the viewer isn’t expected to like these characters. Their attempts at salvation are totally self serving. Simply put, they’re jerks. Rather, Maizie’s hope lay with their stand-ins, Lincoln and Margo, who show that, despite their lack of wisdom, they at least enjoy and nurture their small time together with Maisie.
Onata Aprile’s short career should blossom as people react to her subtle performance here, surprising not her first film. Directors McGehee and Siegel, have now co-directed their fifth feature, including their Golden Globe nominated 2001 mystery drama “The Deep End,” which, like their current effort, centers around conflict, family, and relationships. A good plot helped both, too.
In a summer clogged with tentpoles sucking mostly 3-D IMAX box office dollars, you might want to put a few (lesser) bucks aside for this elegant tadpole swimming with the bigger fishes.